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not lost in translation

not lost in translation

First-time circumnavigating American Ryan Breymaier and German Boris Herrmann aboard Neutrogena have pushed into an incredible fourth place in the Barcelona World Race.  Has there ever been a more successful period for shorthanded US sailors than right now?  Anyway, the blonds have decided to put together a little primer on the basics of Open 60 sailing for all the fans that don’t quite understand what these boats are like.  It’s basic for experienced sailors, but that doesn’t mean your less racy friends or your kids won’t appreciate it, and if the whole Round The World thing presents a few gaps in your understanding, it’s worth reading. Check it :

IMOCA 101
Everyone’s able to watch the tracker, get explanation of the technical matters aboard, and play ‘armchair meteorologist’ back home with all the great BWR website info out there, but there’s a lot more to these boats than you can see.  It is easy for us onboard not to think about how lucky we are to get to sail these machines, and especially how lucky we are to experience the whole range of conditions onboard during a round the world race. 

Unfortunately, one thing that is not possible to easily convey is what it is actually like to sail on of these machines in all the different conditions.

Some of the recurring questions we’re asked:

  1. How fast do you actually go? 
  2. What is the best angle to the wind to get the fastest boatspeed?
  3. What sails do you use in what conditions? 
  4. What conditions qualify as “easy”, “a bit uncomfortable” and “really rough”?

The short answer to all 4 questions is:  It depends a lot on the wind and waves.  I will try to expand on that a little bit for each question, as it is not a very satisfactory response.

For the first question, how fast do we go, it is easier to give the number than anything else. We have what are called “polars” for the boat. This is a data set created by the naval architect at first, then refined with data gathered on board during optimum sailing conditions.  It is a prediction of how fast the boat will sail for any given wind strength or angle.  We have the data for every degree and every knot of windspeed; I will present a table which is simplified for the sake of clarity.

For question number 2, what is the optimum angle to the wind for the fastest speed, the old mantra it really depends on wind speed and waves is even more true, but a look at the butterfly graph, which is typical of the graph for every wind speed, should give an indication.  AS you can see, the absolute fastest in flat water is between 90 and 110 degrees true.

Once you take waves into account, certain things change.  It is always better to have waves coming from behind the boat, say 30-40 degrees or closer to the centerline. Obviously this Is not usually possible except going downwind, but often if the wind has changed direction but the waves have not yet followed suit, we get a couple of hours where we can bias the course a little to sail more with them and increase our best speed.  Even waves from behind that you can surf going upwind are sometimes possible.  (Once so far this trip.)

As for the wind, in 10 knots, the best angle to go fast is 80 degrees from the front. After that, the higher the wind speed, the boat still goes fastest with the wind from just aft of the side, say 100 to 110 degrees from the front.  This is true till about 30 knots.  After that, it is too rough, and the waves are coming from the side as well which is scary, as the boat launches off them.  Then, it is fastest at about 130-140 from the front, and safest at about 155 in 35 knots wind…

Remember as well that we change sails 6 or 7 times during that range to keep the right amount up, not too little, and especially not too much.  Fortunately for the boat, and us, it usually sails better in strong winds with smaller sails than you would imagine.

Part of the reason the boat is fastest with wind from the beam is that when the wind is from more aft, the sails blanket one another.  The other thing is the curved shape of the sails creates low pressure in front of each sail and high pressure behind, and that is actually what makes the boat go fast.  This is why the angle is important as well.  When you are sailing very far downwind, the sails work like a “barn door” held up in the wind and are not as efficient because they do not produce the pressure differential like when the wind flows over them..

This brings us to question 3, which sails do you use in which conditions.  We have a chart which shows all of the sails and graphically shows the range of wind speed and angle where they are used.

This is called the SAILECT chart.  Clever name huh?
Here are all the sails and their colors, with a little description:

Comfort on board, and the motion of the boat while sailing
Generally, any time the water is flat, life on board is pleasant, no matter how strong the wind.  Likewise any time up till about 12 knots in any wind direction, except if there are leftover big waves, which shake the boat about like crazy.
More than 12 knots, and with normal sized waves for the wind strength, it is progressively nicer the farther aft the wind. Upwind and reaching are a tedium of slamming into waves, ranging from gunshot sounds upwind to banging together two trash can lids while reaching. . Until about 22 knots that is.

Life becomes increasingly violent after that, and the boat always heels over more than 15 degrees.  It becomes necessary to pay attention to your movements, especially down below, where there are plenty of things to fall on.  Outside, above 22 knots, there are always waves and water on deck, and in the cockpit, meaning foul weather gear no matter how hot, unless you are planning on just staying wet, and then the apparent wind quickly has you quite cold. Upwind sounds like how I imagine a war – BANG…BANG…BANG constantly. As soon as you are reaching, you are going so fast that it is like being on a runaway train which is constantly falling over cliffs but never crashing.  It is hugely stressful on the nerves, wondering if you will get into the trough of a particularly big wave and nosedive.

Storm conditions on a boat like this are brutal.  It is more or less not possible to go upwind in over 40 knots, and certainly not advisable.  The risk of breaking the boat or your nerves is quite high, and the accelerations and decelerations in waves are like a car accident every 15 or 20 seconds. Downwind in over 38 knots you have reached terminal velocity, and the boat normally buries into most of the waves, and is almost impossible to slow down.  Even with 3 reefs and a storm jib, in 40-45 knots it is possible to be pushed to 25-28 knots of speed quite easily.
I hope with the visual aids I have helped to provide a more technical description of why we use certain sails, when, and how we choose them.  Maybe now watching the videos, or looking at the routes we sail through the various weather scenarios will make more sense.
Feel free to ask any questions you may have via my contact page